Thursday, June 2, 2011

WisCon 35 Panel 25: "Black Souls in White Clones: Swimming in Shawl's 'Deep End'"

This panel has already been blogged (lj'd? dreamwidthed?) expertly by coffeeandink and futuransky; indeed, I helped the former a little with the ending. Nonetheless, I know from WisCon Chronicles 3 that interesting things tend to come up when multiple auditors offer their perspectives.

Panel Description: This story (from Nisi's Filter House collection) challenges every boundary between the "true" self and the lived-in body. If we create a life in the edges of a prison culture, can we ever be free? If the only way to breathe air is in the jailer's clone, are we still ourselves? How can our lovers' unfamiliar bodies still enchant us? When the clone begins to decay, can we accept its limitations?

Panelists Eileen Gunn, Andrea Hairston, Nancy Jane Moore, Jef A. Smith. Smith was unable to appear because of his PM Press duties; but there was a Guest Panelist in the form of Nisi Shawl.

EILEEN delivered an awesome introduction and explanation of the structure of/plans for the discussion, ending with "As we unfold the story, maybe there'll be some surprises for the author." She then read a brief précis of the story Nisi'd written at the panel's request. NANCY remarked that the précis didn't indicate how the story describes the woman [protagonist] and her friends, who are first styled "criminals," then later "rebels." The criminals are people of color, the people who put them there are white, their new bodies are white. The AI in control of the ship carrying their disembodied intelligences represents itself as white. And as a benign doctor-figure who has your best interests at heart. EILEEN observed that Nisi never says just one thing, so you get three impression at once from each sentence. People are being downloaded into clones that are bred from the bodies of their oppressors. NANCY and ANDREA noted that the characters' questions are not the same as those of the reader.

EILEEN remarked that the central character's body seems to have some kind of neurological disorder, with ANDREA adding, "It seems like a whip lash." EILEEN noted that there are also gender issues: the question arises of whether people can switch into new genders when downloading, and the AI has a rule that you have to stick to your gender of origin. EILEEN explained that the characters have two states, corporeal and uploaded, which raises the question of how much of your body is you; ANDREA elaborated that the state without the body is called freespace.

NISI sought to clarify that the rebels were mostly but not exclusively people of color; just 'cause someone chose the name and identity "Robeson" in the rebellion doesn't assure us they're POC. NANCY sought to make sure everybody could hear the panelists, 'cause they were not using the microphone.

NANCY observed that this was the first story she'd ever read where minds were downloaded into clone bodies as punishment; usually, as in Lord of Light, it's framed as privilege. But here, the prisoners are being downloaded into the bodies of people who put them there —not specifically bodies identical to individuals in authority, but bodies cloned from members of the oppressing class. And there's a fear of ways in which this might backfire on the oppressors. Are they going to get what they're hoping to? ANDREA was struck by its being a really odd punishment. It stands in opposition to what we talk about when we say societies are "colonizing the mind" by imposing norms on us that make us hate our bodies. What kind of punishment is this? Mind and body aren't really distinct: you can't strip one from the other without trauma and without disease.

Audience member saw an analogy to slave ships and to the generations of slave rape that whitened the African-American population. NISI said that her model for the story was a penal colony like Australia, and the decision to ship minds and not bodies was a matter of economic efficiency. She was trying to invert the cyberpunk ideal of uploading ourselves all over the place. And to raise the issue of genetic content, with the rebels realizing, "We're going to have their babies." NANCY asked, "Who are those babies going to be?" and NISI replied that that uncertainty is the basis of Wayna's hope. And the idea of the body being destroyed in the process of uploading the consciousness seemed natural: ya gotta take the brain and slice it up. ANDREA said there's a lot going on with bodies that reminds her of the old Cyborg Manifesto, and she wonders whether this technology can, in the spirit of that essay, be used against the Empire. Timmi from the audience said, "That's why I wanted more stories in this world!" mely cited the film Sleep Dealer and explained, "It's the American Dream to have the work done without the workers." ANDREA added, "That's a project of Empire." An audience member observed that Australia was originally populated by people who live in a place called Dreamtime. ANDREA observed, "Wow, yeah." Another audience member compared the situation of having bodies and babies of the oppressors' phenotype with Prima Nocta in feudal times—the term, a couple of people explained, refers to the droit du seigneur thing in which the lord gets to sleep with his vasssals' brides on their wedding nights, so the commoners suffer the process of erasure while still being present.

Audience member observed that the rebels would perpetuate the gene pool of the oppressors, but the people who wouldn't opt into physical meat bodies would be the wrench in these societies. NANCY agreed that those who remain uploaded are going to be these children, and these children are not gonna be just what their bodies came from. ANDREA reminded us that the AI's are just in the trustees, not everybody; and the AI is rigid—they cannot have rules that accommodate whatever's going to happen on the planet; this situation is analogous to what happens in every colony.

NISI said that she just saw to the end of the story and that she writes a lot of stories where there's more that's going to happen and it's after the end of the story. ANDREA said she likes open endings. NISI acknowledged that she might reapply for a donation, which she'd done unsuccessfully six years ago, to get the novel done. She said that as time goes on, there's more and more people deciding not to download: you have to decide, "Which place do I have more control in?" Audience member asked whether you can really love and raise a child who's "the enemy, physically." Culturally, when you enslave someone, they get reified and their social identity from their own culture gets obliterated.

Recalling such issues as Wayna's disability, an audience member said, "If they're having so many errors in the clones, it's gonna be a problem" and asked whether the prisoners could hack the technology. NISI said she didn't think they could get any access to the technology—there's no way for them, say, to get spacesuits and go over to the AI's ship. ANDREA asked where the errors are from and returned to the mind/body issue: "It's not this easy interface wherein the body has a mind and the mind has a body: the body is not like a dvd player. To me [emphasizing her arm gestures], my hands are a big part of how I think: if I were to lose them, how would I form thoughts? How would I even talk?" An audience member explained that of course they use cheap cloning technology—you don't give your best to the prisoners. But it adds to the chaos. Beth was not hopeful that the cracks in the machine would somehow offer liberatory opportunities. She got a lot of despair from the story: the prisoners seemed to her very submissive and accepting of their situation and struggling just to feel their existence. The oppressors don't care that the people are unwell. It's not a reflection of a tool for subversion.

Concerning the multiplicity of interpretations that was developing, ANDREA said it's not just an open ending, but an open story. There are many, many mysteries and questions that the narrator's not asking. NANCY noted that the "benign but horrific," which I think an audience member had mentioned, is visible all around us. She just saw a roomful of intelligent people, mostly women, talking about health care in the U.S., and the question that they were addressing for days was just, "Who pays?" The AI is very much an example of the benign but horrific. They follow the rule, just as many Nazis must have.

EILEEN ate with Hiromi Goto, who feels that YA fiction demands a clear, easily-understandable plot. Nisi's work doesn't have that: it's as complex as life itself. Not just the one story, but everything in the book. ANDREA said it could easily spin into chaos if she didn't do it so well. EILEEN added that every sentence requires so much thought. NANCY acknowledged that people hope for an expansion of the story, but "As it is, we do all get to write our own novel." EILEEN asked Nisi directly, "Do you understand as you're writing that there's all these things you don't get to? Or do you only see that afterward?" NISI got some laughs by protesting, "When I'm writing, I don't think I'm leaving anything out. I thought it was a very simple, straightforward story." ANDREA took up that adjective and explained that "Simplistic is when you've reduced the complexity; simple is where you've represented the complexity. In those terms, simple is hard to do."

An audience member said that "benign but horrific" reminded her of the Xenogenesis stories, because she felt there she was in a colonized situation with the Oankali as loving oppressors. And U.S. slavery must have felt like that in the 1820s and 30s: there was no good solution imaginable. NISI argued that nobody is completely helpless: there are some solutions, or choices you can make. That's what she tries to put forth in her writing. ANDREA explained that you have a reduced amount of possibility, but you figure out the small thing (or the big thing) you can do—the oppressors aren't perfect, because nobody is. Nisi's characters are still rebels and are still trying. EILEEN suggested that the pessimistic audience member read the slave narratives, which show all kinds of attempts to have a small amount of control.

NISI told us that the "whip lash" neurological symptom was not symbolic in its origin but was something she'd actually suffered. And she went to her doctor and said she was crying every morning because she was in pain, and the doctor suggested Prozac! And she rejected that idea, and then her spiritual teacher suggested doing her nails and doing makeup—and it helped! 'Cause it was agency! It's not all she ended up doing for the problem, but it worked!

Alex asked, "Can we talk about the sex in freespace?" ANDREA wanted to understand, what is freespace? She liked that she didn't quite get it, that she was reaching for that . . . NANCY didn't want to be on one side or the other of the mind/body divide: she liked the idea that there's a choice, but she has a visceral reaction against that binary. An audience member talked about all the mind and the imagination can do, even influencing bodily sensation to the extent that, with imagination, you can give yourself an orgasm without touching yourself. ANDREA thinks of the theatre of the mind as being vast, but it requires experience before you get to that: virtual reality is so simplistic by comparison with all that your nerves and your muscles and your perception of the world and of your body provide you with. EILEEN observed that the more you look at contemporary neuroscience, the more the mind/body divide goes away. The mind does organize the experience of the body [here my note-taking hand ceased for a while to be the ready servant of my will: when it recovered, EILEEN was talking about the prisoners, saying that] although adults, they seem very innocent. ANDREA found that what they feel about the people who did this to them is very muted. NANCY suggested that eighty-odd years in space could have muted those feelings and focused them on the here and now of imprisonment. ANDREA noted that they had great sex and interesting relationships and connections.

An audience member was not sold on the captors' motivation to maintain freespace. What's the incentive to keep it goin'? NISI acknowledged that Wayna is aware of the uncertainty and the fact that they might cut it off. NANCY said the people who stay in freespace are deciding to risk that. mely asked about how the choice to be trapped in a defective body relates to disability issues and would anyone like to address those. ANDREA said that Nisi's experience of her doctor telling her, "You're fine, it's all in your head" is part of the more general problem of disabled people being told "Your troubles aren't real and we don't have to take you into account in the world when we design it."

I was so impressed by ANDREA's final insight that I complimented her on it when we spoke Saturday evening in the party corridor, and she added that the we're being told that the inaccessible built environment is "natural" and that if you can't negotiate it, you aren't real. Professor Hairston really "gets" disability—not everyone, however progressive and brilliant they may be in other respects, does.

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